CASE STUDY: making local food sexy in Suffolk

Jason Cranbrook launched Suffold Food Adventures in 2005
How do you turn people on to local food and away from supermarkets? One way is to celebrate it through 'adventures', from wild food barbecues to scrumptious feasts of locally baked foods

Wearing a chequered cap, Jason welcomes me at his door while his dog and cat wander behind him in the charming rustic kitchen, full of local produce. I have come to stay on his farm, to experience one of his increasingly renowned local food adventures.

Jason is tireless in heralding local food and the richness of East Suffolk's food culture; a region abounding in an enormous diversity of delicious locally grown and produced food. He founded Alde Valley Food Adventures in 2005 - an imaginative rolling programme of events celebrating local food, as well as farming, landscape and art.

The Food Adventures have become immensely popular with large groups of people coming together to feast on local food - either seasonally farmed or foraged wild from the Suffolk countryside.

‘Food Adventures celebrate that this area is superstore free from source to sea,' Jason says. His mother, Lady Caroline Cranbrook is famous for having stopped the building of a superstore in the area.

A world of adventure

The adventures vary from unusual wild food barbecues to scrumptious feasts of locally baked foods, and they are held in a huge barn at his home, White House Farm in East Suffolk's Alde Valley; with local musicians and a bohemian feel. They were deservedly a finalist in the 2006 Suffolk tourism awards.

Jason holds a Food Adventure while I am staying with him; the enormous open-sided barn is boldly atmospheric, fires crackle, there are sheep rugs, old sofas and chairs scattered around. Mulled wine is served from a large pot, and music lulls from a nearby outbuilding. The feasting tables are long and chunky, roughly hewn from farm oak trees.

Jason, who was born in Malaysia, explains that Walter and Humphry, two Kelabit men, came to stay with him and built the tables.
‘When they saw my saw they laughed and said, "what the English man calls a big saw we use to cut firewood with in Bario!",' Jason grins as he tells the story. 'My Food Adventures are influenced by the Kelabit's community feasts'.

Alde Valley Food Adventures, however, have an even stronger connection with Malaysia than their tables. In 2006 Jason helped start the annual Bario and Kelabit Highlands Food Festival in the Kelabit highlands of central Borneo in Sarawak - a community owned festival where all the food is grown, made or collected from the jungle by Kelabit families living in long houses and the semi-nomadic Penan people of the rainforest, celebrating traditional foods, landscape and cultural heritage.

Food from farm to plate

Jason holds Food Adventures in local venues as well as in his feasting barn. These have included a 30-dish buffet at Farmcafé in Marlesford, food for a gypsy festival at the Museum of East Anglian Life, a 19 course Alde Valley tapas at Aldeburgh's Cabin café and cooking demonstrations at the Suffolk Show and Aldeburgh Festival.

'In a century where further food and fuel shortages are predicted, Britain needs to build its self-reliance in food,' Jason says. The benefits of local food are numerous, besides the obvious of having less food miles attached. Food traceability makes eating safer and sourcing wholesome food easier.

'It is crucial that people become reconnected to the countryside and understand how food is produced,' Jason says. 'We have hunted and cooked food for years, but recently people have become very separated from its production and knowing where their food comes from. And we are no longer connected to the seasons.'

By eating locally people can enjoy good food and safeguard their future by strengthening the local food chain.

Today we are dangerously dependent on the rest of the world for food. As Andrew Simms, the policy director of New Economics Foundation (Nef), says: ‘National food self-sufficiency is in long term decline, and we are increasingly dependent on imports at precisely the time when the guarantee of the rest of the world's ability to provide for us is weakening.'

Festive feasts

As well as his Food Adventures, Jason hosts an annual 4-week spring festival at the farm. Throughout this event he organises feasts, music, woodland walks and an exhibition of local artists in a gallery; with all the art inspired by local landscapes.

The gallery is set up in the lambing barns, and when I visit they are full of woodcarvings, beautiful paintings and exquisite carved chairs.

'The lambing barns are seasonal. In February they are maternity nursing pens for the ewes and then we scrub them down and use them as an art space in the spring,' Jason explains.

Jason himself is a wonderful artist; his distinctive dark, heavy sketches are of scenes in the weekly markets, local landscape and livestock. ‘I go to the market to sketch or sit among the Red Poll cattle (native to Suffolk),' Jason says. Suffolk is full of market towns, and many of them have kept their traditional weekly markets.

Living landscapes

Nearby Campsea Ashe is one of these; its market is every Monday, a day on which it still has food auctions. In a dark, atmospheric shed men hold up bunches of pheasants and the auctioneer shouts prices, surrounded by a crowd in tweed and caps. Rabbit feet and vivid orange partridge beaks poke out of numbered slots on antiquated wooden box shelves.

As well as drawing Jason manages White House Farm, which was a regional finalist in Natural England's 2008 Future of Farming awards. On the farm he rears his home-branded Alde Valley lamb for local sales, the taste of which is sensational.

'Livestock and land are linked,' Jason says. 'Grazing animals play a crucial role in maintaining Britain's pastoral landscape.'

Jason also runs a wildflower enrichment programme at the farm, spreading seeds to encourage wildlife and leaving the grass long in areas for crickets and butterflies. 'Now there are blue tits nesting in my office doorway and grass snakes and hedgehogs pitch up in the garden,' Jason says.

Future food

Soon Jason will be hosting 25 school visits a year to the farm so that children can learn about food, land and farming. This is linked to East Feast, a pioneering schools project that encourages children to eat local food.

It began at Aldeburgh primary school, and is being rolled out into other schools in Suffolk. The children spent a year learning how to cultivate food and then at the end cooked a big meal for the community using all the food they had grown. Throughout the year artists and gardeners came into the school, teaching them about different seeds and edible foods, and creative ways of presenting food, like how to decorate tablecloths.

Landscape influences the variety and quality of food produced, causing each county in Britain to have its own distinctive food. Suffolk has the marshes and river valleys for livestock, coastline and rivers for fish, woodlands for wild game meats, clay uplands for cereals and sandy coastal soils for vegetables.

'We should celebrate the cultural heritage of food,' Jason says.

He talks about the visits he has made to Bulgaria and its abundance of home-grown foods with hives in people's backyards and miles of market gardens. 'In Britain we have lost sight of how productive we are and how rich our land is,' Jason says. 'We need to nurture abundance again instead of steering towards GM crops and "globalised" solutions.'

Useful links
Alde Valley Food Adventures

Food campaigner: Lady Cranbrook
A tireless crusader for rural revitalisation, Kate Eshelby meets the septuagenarian who beat Tesco out of town and is now at the heart of Suffolk’s local food revival
Food Growing Communities: Julie Brown
A host of communal vegetable gardens are springing up in the concrete heart of East London. Ben Willis meets the woman coaxing life from the urban jungle
10 steps to creating a local food group
Tamzin Pinkerton & Rob Hopkins's new book, Local Food, is an indispensable guide for anyone interested in creating a local food group. Here's an extract to whet your appetite...

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